They were saving their flare for a celebration but had to use it for an emergency Tuesday.
Tanner Ballengee, 24, and Conner Morton, 26, both of Topeka, Kan., were sailing down the Mississippi River when they were blinded by snowfall and fog and got stuck on a lateral dam around Moline.
"It just kept coming down," Morton said. "We lost all visibility. It took us by surprise."
The Moline Fire Department got the call about 11 a.m., and a rescue boat went out looking for the sailboat.
"It took a while to find them because the visibility is near zero," Moline Fire Capt. Mick Dochterman said.
Rescuers found them after the stranded men fired off a flare.
"We had been wanting to shoot that flare gun," Morton said. "We were saving it for a celebration, but we had to use it in an emergency instead."
The men started their journey more than a week ago at Lake Itasca in Minnesota, the headwaters of the Mississippi. They got about 500 miles in a canoe when someone at a marina in Wisconsin gave them a free sailboat, a flare and instructions.
Ballengee smiled and said he has never sailed before. But they had big ambitions for their trip.
"Our goal was to get to the Gulf of Mexico," Ballengee said. "We got off to a late start."
They started Tuesday's leg of their journey in LeClaire, and there were flurries, but the weather seemed OK enough to sail, Ballengee said.
As they headed into the Quad-Cities, the snow got heavier and was falling faster. The steam rising from the river created a dense fog so they couldn't see either the Iowa or Illinois sides.
According to National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Ervin, the temperature of the river was a warm 54 degrees, and that combined with moist, cool air created a thick fog.
It was too late when they saw the dam. Ballengee said he tried to turn to avoid hitting it, but the 22-foot vessel slammed into the rocks.
Neither man was injured. They complained of being cold.
Sitting in a Moline Fire vehicle warming up, they didn't know the condition of their boat but remained determined to continue on their journey.